The Black Box

The Black Box

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership, 3-LI

The Black Box


Eons ago, when I was in engineering school, we had an exercise known as “The Black Box.” The idea is simple; the challenge wasn’t always so simple. Inside the box, hidden from our view, was an electronic circuit. There were two variations, a paper exercise where the instructor gave us the input and output

waveforms, and we had to derive the mathematical function. What I think was the more fun version, a physical exercise with an actual circuit. For the physical challenge, the instructor gave us some limited information — such as the type of input we could use to excite the circuit, the power supply parameters, and similar variables. Our job was to figure out what was in the black box.

So, for a given input, called “X,” we would observe the output, using an oscilloscope or other instruments. The production of the Black Box had to be, of course, a function of the input, or, F(X). We had to determine what kind of circuit would produce the observed output of X. I’m not going to bore you with the engineering. Besides, it’s been so long since I’ve done any design work that it would take me forever to make sure what I said here was correct.


My point here is to draw the analogy to leadership and an organization’s culture. For most of us, in many organizations, the culture — how things get done around here — is a black box. We see an input — a set of business circumstances — then something goes on inside that “cultural black box,” and the output happens, i.e., we make a decision. The employees then execute that decision. It’s too often left up to the employees to figure out what’s in the cultural black box by way of organizational values, vision, and mission that would cause a particular output (decision), given the specific input (i.e., customer need, quality failure, pricing, or challenges). Why do we do that?

The Black Box Culture Challenge

Inattentiveness is why we do that! When we start a business, it is often just the founder. Likely s/he has never really stopped to think deeply about their values. They go about building their product or service, making the necessary decisions, and, hopefully, things go well. Well enough that s/he starts hiring people. Since the leader has not codified the values by which the company has grown, we engage in, “it feels like a fit” intuition with emphasis on technical competency.

If the entrepreneur hasn’t taken the time to think through the fundamental values by which s/he lives life and therefore runs the business, how in the world are new employees supposed to know if they embrace the same values? Although the black box is a fun exercise for engineering students, it’s a potential disaster to build your business culture with such a black box challenge.

Values, Vision, Mission

Provide the Equation

Actively managing your corporate culture requires that you codify the values, vision, mission, and goals and that we hire in a way that determines as best we can that the prospect shares the same values and vision. We can always train for technical competency. It makes no sense to subject our employees to the “values black box challenge.” Be fully transparent and, perhaps more importantly, know the fundamental values yourself, live them, and insist that all stakeholders know them as well. If we don’t do the hard work of understanding our values, codifying them, and making them visible to all stakeholders, we will wind up with an accidental culture that is highly likely to disappoint our customers and us. For a good lesson in how this works, you may want to find the time to read Bob Chapman’s and Raj Sisodia’s new book, Everybody Matters.

[Lightly edited on 9/2020 for our new website.]